Chief Mark Chaires stirred up a hornet’s nest Monday by asking the Schenectady City Council to hire nine additional police officers.
Although all he wanted was permission to apply for a grant that would pay for the officers’ first three years, the council nearly refused his request. Eventually, they reluctantly agreed to apply for the grant but warned Chaires that they might reject the grant if he wins it.
Most council members focused on the bottom line: It would cost $1 million to keep those officers employed in their fourth year, and the city would be prohibited from keeping other positions vacant to pay the bill. If the City Council used taxes to pay for those officers, it would require a tax hike of more than 3 percent.
“I’m all for having as many police officers as we absolutely need and to improve our response time, but I want to make sure we’re not locking ourselves into a hole,” Mayor Brian U. Stratton said.
Councilman Mark Blanchfield said he wanted more work out of the current officers rather than more officers.
“Get more efficiences,” he told Chaires. “Focus on man hours.”
Blanchfield also tried to debunk a popular myth that suggests that hiring new officers would allow the city to save more money than it now spends on overtime.
“Theoretically, if you have staff around, the hours that are now working at an overtime rate can be worked by a new hire,” he said. But the cost of benefits for that new hire — including health insurance and pension payments — is more than the cost of paying another officer time-and-a-half to work overtime, he said.
Councilwoman Denise Brucker, once a stalwart supporter of the police, also objected to the proposal on financial grounds.
“That’s a 3 percent tax increase. That’s a huge expense to the taxpayer,” she said.
Only Councilman Gary McCarthy, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, took Chaires’ side.
“People will pay a premium if they feel safe,” he said. “In some neighborhoods right now, they do not feel safe.”
Chaires told the council that crime in the city is so high that he must have more officers.
“We have the workload of the Albany Police Department and 100 less officers,” he said.
Last Friday, the evening shift had 135 calls, he said.
By comparison, Albany had 215 calls during that same shift, about a third more than Schenectady, according to Albany spokesman Det. James Miller. Albany also has about a third more residents than Schenectady and about twice as many police officers.
Chaires said he has maximized Schenectady’s number of patrol officers by eliminating two administrative positions and removing another school resource officer.
“It comes down to making decisions. Right now, the need is on the street,” he said.
He is also now requiring officers to submit an explanation in writing whenever they use overtime that was not required to meet minimum staffing levels.
Most police are paid overtime to fill in gaps on shifts hard hit by sick leave, vacations or comp time. But some overtime is used for investigations, interviews and other tasks that might be scheduled during the officer’s regular shift.
“If it’s not on the normal shift, we want to make sure it’s absolutely necessary and can’t be done any other way,” Chaires said. “It’s not that there’s any fraud. It’s just a reminder to always be efficient.”
But it’s not enough, Stratton said.
“We’ve said all along we need fundamental changes in our labor contract to get the most out of the 166 officers we already have,” he said.
He said officers take too many days off instead of accepting pay for overtime work. He is expected to push for comp time limits in the new contract under negotiation now.
In the meantime, he said discipline may correct some of the problems.
Administrators are analyzing whether senior officers abuse the unlimited sick time policy, which allows any officer hired before 1995 to call in sick as often as needed.
“The abuses or potential abuses to workers’ comp, that’s something we’re looking at, too,” Stratton said.
Discipline could also eliminate the poor work ethic that has led some officers to leave work for hours while claiming to be on patrol, he said, describing firings as a way to “instill a culture of solid performance.”